Issues & Activities
In 1942, the NAACP Elmira Branch was reborn after an extended hiatus when local manufacturer Bendix-Eclipse refused to hire a group of black women. The company eventually relented under the pressure of war-time labor shortages, but hiring discrimination was a huge problem throughout the state. In 1945, New York became the first state to pass a workplace anti-discrimination law. Over the following decades, the local NAACP served as a clearinghouse for complaints against area employers. In 1966, for example, they lodged a complaint against Ingersoll-Rand which forced the company to reevaluate their hiring practices and begin offering employee training programs.
Help wanted ad for Bendix-Eclipse. Image courtesy of the Elmira Star-Gazette.
During World War II, local companies were desperate for workers to help with vital war production. But, when nearly 50 black women from the Negro Women’s Progressive Club applied en mass to work at Bendix-Eclipse in the spring of 1942, they were told there was “no place for Negros” at the company. The group, led by club president Grace Mann, wrote to the NAACP for advice on how to proceed. Upon their advice, Mann revived the Elmira NAACP branch and submitted affidavits about their experience to the special unit of the New York State Department of Labor which investigated hiring discrimination. By the summer of 1942, Bendix-Eclipse had begun hiring black workers.
Patrolman Wilbur Reid, Elmira Police Department, 1959
Prior to the 1950s, there had only been one black policeman and no black firefighters in the city of Elmira. In 1947, the NAACP petitioned the Elmira City Council to hire African Americans for positions in the police and fire departments. The City Council agreed to consider any candidate who passed the civil service exams. In 1950, Thomas Reid Jr. became Elmira’s first black fireman. He remained with the Elmira Fire Department until retiring in 1985. His brother Wilbur Reid became the Elmira Police Department’s first black officer in the 20th century in 1953.
Headline about NAACP anti-discrimination suit, Elmira Star-Gazette, July 22, 1966
In 1966, the NAACP Elmira Branch accused manufacturer Ingersoll-Rand of discriminatory hiring practices, but they were far from the only local company with a poor track record on race. Despite blacks making up just over 10% of the local population, they only formed around 2% of the workforce in most major employers. A 1964 study by the NAACP and Elmira Star-Gazette found that many black workers felt that they had been passed over for promotion or grouped with other African Americans on unpopular shifts or departments.